The Florida panther is one of the Sunshine State’s most iconic species. Pushed out of their original range, which once encompassed all of the southeastern United States, the last remnants of the panther population were isolated at the southern tip of the Florida peninsula. In the 1970s when researchers set out to determine if wild pumas still existed in the state, they found evidence that perhaps 12- 20 animals still roamed forests, swamps and prairies across a mix of public and private lands. Today, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) estimates there are between 100 and 180 Florida panther adults in the wild. Brought back from the brink of extinction through the conservation efforts of federal, state, and local partners, the cat stands as a symbol of what we can accomplish when we fight to save an endangered animal. But the panther’s future is by no means secure yet.
FWC held what proved to be a tense meeting late last month. Conservation groups and concerned citizens alike had seen the FWC’s proposed new policy on Florida panthers – officially called the draft FWC Panther Position Statement – and were alarmed at what it could mean for these endangered cats.
In their position statement, the FWC recommended that the agency pull back on Florida panther recovery efforts. Instead of continuing to help Florida panthers expand their range, they would focus their staff and funding on panther management only where the one known breeding population exists in south Florida. The statement also suggested that FWC would not be actively assisting in recovery north of the Caloosahatchee River and Lake Okeechobee until conflicts in south Florida were resolved. Lastly, FWC claimed that the recovery goals for Florida panthers need to be changed.
For decades, FWC has played a vital role in panther conservation in Florida. Revenue raised by Florida drivers voluntarily purchasing the panther vehicle license plate fund FWC’s excellent research and management team that have been essential to the success so far in restoring the health and numbers of panthers in south Florida. Instead of scaling back their work on panther recovery, they should build on that past panther conservation legacy, and recommit to continuing the progress they helped bring about for this species.
The benchmarks for helping Florida panthers recover were founded in science – and the suggestion in the position statement to back away from those goals because they are difficult to achieve was not. It was clear that the agency was heading in the direction of making decisions for the panthers’ future based on maintaining the population at a level that satisfies the interests of certain stakeholders in the region– not what was best for the species.
FWC is right to highlight the need for real action and solutions to prevent conflicts between humans and panthers which have been increasing in recent years. Both human and panther populations in Florida have been growing – livestock conflicts, panther deaths by vehicle collision and habitat loss are all important issues that need to be addressed. We do need to increase human tolerance for these predators, work to prevent panther predation on livestock and establish and fund incentives for landowners to protect much-needed panther habitat. That’s why it’s more important than ever that federal and state conservation agencies work to move the species recovery forward. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in particular needs to step up and provide more leadership and support for this endangered species.
Many concerned citizens testified at the FWC meeting, including members of our Florida team.
Defenders submitted detailed comments to FWC, and in our testimony, we cautioned strongly against the proposed changes in the agency’s policies and programs that could compromise panther recovery. Fortunately, they listened. The Commissioners decided to continue working on the statement and bring it back for discussion at their September meeting. We will continue to provide input and encourage the agencies to strengthen their partnership and commitment to panther recovery. They need to take the time to have a constructive dialogue with all interested partners to develop a collaborative, science-based plan for moving forward.
The job of panther recovery is by no means finished, and with promising programs in the works to help resolve conflicts and increase tolerance for the panther’s return to the landscape, now is not the time for FWC to back away. Decades ago, federal and state wildlife agencies, public and private interests, worked together and created an innovative strategy to bring the Florida panther back from the brink of extinction. And it’s this kind of collaboration, planning and program implementation that we need now.
You Can Help
Today’s Florida panthers exist in a tiny fraction of their historic range – and their habitat is still shrinking. Ask USFWS to step up panther recovery efforts and give these cats more room to roam.